Trump’s foreign policy magic act

Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

It’s almost as if Las Vegas has come to Washington, D.C., and the hugely popular magic tricks always feature misdirection. The audience’s attention is drawn in one direction while the real action is somewhere else. Nowhere is this becoming more evident than in the nearly three years of President Trump’s successful foreign policy show.  

On the biggest stage, he excoriates our NATO allies and yet comes home with a larger NATO budget and an unprecedented visit from the European Union (EU) to seriously negotiate a trade deal. He pulls the same stunt with Canada and Mexico, with similar results. But that, of course, is not the trick. The real stunt is that he then begins to negotiate a much more important deal with China without needing to watch his back from Europe, Canada and Mexico.

He publicly embraces brutal authoritarian leaders of Russia, China, and North Korea one day and then increases a defense budget aimed at each of them the next. He puts huge economic and naval pressure on China and then quietly asks for a little help on North Korea. 

He totally distracts and muddies the waters with Twitter storms and often embarrassing public behavior, and then delivers surprising and unpredicted results. It is almost as if he has a plan.

At each stage of the show, he is roundly criticized by the “experts” at think tanks, “old hands” from the Defense and State departments, some foreign diplomats, and a gaggle of TV pundits — until his strategies begin to work. It is almost as if he knows something that is not taught in Ivy League international relations courses or the War College — it is well beyond Clausewitz or Sun Tzu. 

The past few weeks are a case in point. 

Tensions with Iran were heading toward what many felt would be major conflict. Oil markets were rattled. Trump gave the “launch” order, but then retracted it. Was a major upheaval in the Middle East at hand, or was it a highly indirect message? It was certainly clear that U.S. action could disrupt oil shipments, but to whom? Not the U.S., which is largely independent because of Trump’s oil and gas policies, so perhaps it was the Chinese and European industrial machines, which are not. Could Trump have been sending a message to the Chinese on trade, North Korea, and its “too-cool-for-school” cyber and space warfare stunts, ahead of the G-20 meeting? Could Trump have been sending a message to the EU on Iran sanctions?

Two more simultaneous moves were even more pointed. 

Trump’s flying halfway around the world to play golf with the conservative prime minister of Japan, just weeks before he flew back to Japan to attend the G-20, may have sent another message. It was no accident that Trump almost simultaneously suggested that he might withdraw some of the U.S. military forces defending Japan. What did all that mean? Was it elegant Kabuki theater starring Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe? Well, many think that when Trump finally “releases the Kraken” it means national security adviser John Bolton. But in geopolitics, the real Kraken may be Japan.

One possible scenario is that Trump’s golf course conversation led to the suggested withdrawal of U.S. power from Japan, which, combined with additional provocative actions in Asia by North Korea (firing missiles at Japan) and China (more aggressive posture in the South China Sea) might prompt conservative Japanese leadership to expand its already formidable military and perhaps even move toward nuclear weapons as a defensive measure (weapons that would both work and hit their targets). 

That is the nightmare scenario for China and North Korea. The implied threat of such a dramatic change in the Asian balance of power certainly makes the conversations between Trump and China’s Xi Jinping much more interesting. 

The other move, of course, was hosting the Polish president at the White House and offering increased U.S. military force in Poland — a message to Russia’s Vladimir Putin to cool it with the hypersonic weapons threats, the energy blackmail of Europe, and the nuclear testing, or risk facing a bigger NATO threat up close. 

The U.S. has not exercised such a multidimensional strategy in decades. It is baffling to the foreign policy “establishment” sipping cocktails in Martha’s Vineyard. It is vexing to the Chinese, who think their Sun Tzu/Warring-States asymmetric warfare tactics of deception, espionage and slow constriction of resources is a subtle and winning long game. It is plain English to Russians trying to expand their brute force. It is a friendly reminder to mercantilist European allies doing deals with devils such as Iran and Russia.

During his business career, Trump has had to deal directly with New York real estate competitors, building contractors, labor unions, government bureaucrats, the mob, TV producers, steel manufacturers, global banks, and every other species of cutthroat on the planet. And he has won — the proof is in his buildings. Perhaps that’s why he talks the language of the Chinese, Russians, North Koreans and Iranians and has become a much more formidable foe to America’s enemies than the last generation of U.S. presidents.

Grady Means is a writer and retired corporate strategy consultant. He served in the White House as a policy assistant to Nelson Rockefeller and as a staff economist for Secretary Elliott Richardson of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Follow him on Twitter @GradyMeans.

Tags China Donald Trump Foreign policy of Donald Trump John Bolton National Defense Strategy NATO North Korea Russia Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping

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